New Beginnings in the 2nd Section
Even though everyone had been looking forward to it for two weeks, somehow it still seemed premature when the ride finally reached Xi’an and the sectional riders disassembled the bikes that had carried them here. It was too soon to be saying goodbye; things had just gotten started. In just the preceding days, as the ride crossed though the industrial flatlands, everything had found its rhythm. The bikes were right. The sit bones were just about sitting right. Everything was falling into place. We’d even started to make peace with inscrutable hotel rituals (“polluted towel” fee?), the murderous driving, and the realization the country’s dreary, soot-caked coal towns were just as much a part of this experience as its intricately-carved historic sites.
And although it seemed a bit too quick, the whirring energy of Xi’an was the right kind of bookend to the first section of the tour. Here’s was an ancient walled city of fifteen million people where China’s brilliant and baffling dichotomies were even represented in the choice for dinner: will it be one of the 300 varieties of street food (literally!) along the labyrinth streets of the city’s historic Muslim Quarter, or a Big Mac? With some time to spend off the bikes, we took in one of China’s most memorable archeological attractions in the Army of Terra Cotta soldiers, which were built in 209 BC as the funeral guardians for Qin Shi Huang. We found the neighborhood laundry and the stretch of backpacker bars serving imported beer. By the time we climbed on the bikes again to leave the city with some fresh faces among the ranks, it felt like a new beginning.
With the trip’s second chapter, everything – the topography and the weather, the million little things you see on and off the bike – seems to change at a hastened pace. The unending string of towns that lay along the industrial corridors of the east has given way to a vast agricultural and cultural corridor, quieter streets and a less heavily touristed path. Two days outside of Xi’an, one of China’s largest and most modern cities, we left Shaanxi Province and entered Gansu Province, passing cave houses and ox-drawn plows.
In the span of 20 km of flat, smooth pavement, you’ll pedal past a 1500-year old Buddhist grotto, an oversized cluster of high-tension electric lines and a piled of half-constructed brick houses for migrant laborers. Moving west, the food has started to change as well: the roast vegetables at dinner are sprinkled with large crystals of sugar instead of salt, the rice and produce are fresher and more Muslim carts sell bread and grilled meat at the intersections of town. Even with the nearly perfect roads and occasional tailwind, the pace is still slow enough to see these changes emerge with a passing afternoon.
Here, in the increasingly more remote heart of China, it makes a deeply gratifying reminder of how intimately a place can be observed from the seat of a bicycle.